Food & drink: Fashionably late
Eating Out: While it's true that Cocoon may not be a first-generation, quick-off-the-blocks pan-Asian restaurant, it does deliver the goods in a gloriously groovy setting
Sunday 06 February 2005
Is this plagiarism or just fashion? In recent years London has been getting more and more New Yorked; installing a cool mix of pan-Asian restaurant concepts. It is not fusion food so much as cleaned-up, modernised interpretations of traditional cuisine, presented afresh for a new generation.
Cocoon, a series of spherical, low-ceilinged dining- rooms and bars in the old L'Odeon restaurant space on Regent Street, is the latest in the genre. You enter off Air Street, divest of coats, and head up a spiral staircase. True to form, there is nothing remotely Asian about the look or feel of the room apart from a slight reference in the Japanesey staff outfits.
More blatant than most about being pan-Asian, it coolly mixes sushi and sashimi with dim sum and wok-fries - not on the same platters, thank Buddha, but throughout the menu. Over two visits, I have sampled mainly dim sum and sushi, to good effect. Two spanking slim-line fingers of salmon nigiri (pounds 6 - ouch, pounds 3 each) appear on a handsome, blonde-wooden board practically gleaming with health and happiness, while two glistening fingers of blue-fin tuna sashimi (pounds 4.50) have such a sparkle and lustre they could have come straight from Asprey.
There is a lot of circus sushi as well, with which the chefs like to walk a tightrope and perform death- defying feats. Dragon sushi rolls (pounds 7.50) filled with salmon and wrapped in fine slices of avocado look pretty enough until the avocado peels off like a mummy's bandages. Soft-shell crab maki (pounds 8) might be called dynamite spider roll as it is at Zuma, but there, the similarity ends. The texture is plasticky, the flavour ditto. And I can't be convinced that blasting salmon and tuna sushi with a blow-torch is a good idea.
The mixed dim-sum basket is an understudy to the Hakkasan version. A collection of seafood dim sum (pounds 12), contains two very familiar-looking scallop-topped siu mai dabbed with wasabi tobiko (crunchy little flying- fish roe), two opalescent green chive dumplings, two loosely juicy crab dumplings and two immaculately formed har gau, steamed prawn dumplings. Flavours are sweet, fresh and lively, the pastry skins (so difficult to make correctly) are admirably fine, and the technique is viciously good.
Much money has been spent - witness the classy wine glasses, round tables of clear Perspex encasing faux rose petals, celebrity wine list, and swivelling hemispherical chairs. We do love a good swivel this year. Designer Stephane Dupoux has created pod-like rooms divided by Starck-inspired net curtains that allow only a shadowy Pyscho-like glimpse of the goings-on around you. Even so, it quickly becomes clear that some pods are more desirable than others. But which? This uncertainty creates such social paranoia that, in every room, people are desperately trying to be up-graded to another.
There is not so much atmosphere as noise, and it is so warm that I fear I shall hatch from chrysalis to beautiful butterfly before the end of the meal. The staff are sweet in a space cadet sort of way, with lots of dishes and bills brought to the wrong tables - although this could be because everyone is trading up.
Of other dishes tried, a spiky, spicy Szechuan hot and sour soup has been refined without being robbed of its nationality, and plump duck spring rolls (pounds 5) are better than most. A salad of seared rare beef (pounds 10) is very cute - small rolls of beef rolled around pickled cucumber hide under a cloud of small green leaves and a give-me-more spicy chutney dressing.
Desserts - date samosas with spicy chocolate mousse and matcha sauce, or carrot coconut cake with pistachio cream and mango lassi - are resistible.
At night, it's a Saudi crowd, talking Brazilian taxes - or was that waxes? - anyway, apparently only women under 30 should have them. By day, "express" lunch options are added, that are indeed speedy (45 minutes), generous and well priced (a dim-sum set is pounds 15).
It is a slightly strange place. It makes me feel tense rather than relaxed, perhaps because it is building on the strengths of others rather than building something of its own. The dim sum is very good, but not as mind- blowingly good as at Hakkasan and Yauatcha. The sushi is superior, but not as luminously fresh as at Zuma. The rooms are pretty, but don't have the karma of Sketch.
Yet while certainly derivative, I don't see Cocoon as being second-rate. It's more of a natural progression - absorbing influences, learning from the masters and running with them into a fashionable future. This is not such a bad thing. Fashion is often the name given to something that we didn't know we wanted until we saw it. Clever people then, make sure we get it, at all levels.
Score:14 Cocoon 65 Regent Street, London W1, tel: 020 7494 7600. Lunch daily. Dinner Monday to Saturday. Around pounds 110 for two including drinks and service
SCORES 1-9 STAY HOME AND COOK 10-11 NEEDS HELP 12 OK 13 PLEASANT ENOUGH 14 GOOD 15 VERY GOOD 16 CAPABLE OF GREATNESS 17 SPECIAL, CAN'T WAIT TO GO BACK 18 HIGHLY HONOURABLE 19 UNIQUE AND MEMORABLE 20 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
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